The promise

By Thanavalli Rajaretnam, The Star (Malaysia), January 30, 2005

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- How long more do you intend to pore over that newspaper? Can you come here right away and make your darling daughter eat her food??

I tossed the paper away and rushed to where the questions came from. My only daughter, Sindu, looked frightened. Tears were welling up in her eyes. In front of her was a bowl filled to the brim with curd rice.

Sindu, who has just turned eight, is a nice child, quite intelligent for her age. But she particularly detests curd rice. However, my mother and wife are orthodox about certain things: they believe firmly in the ?cooling effects? of curd rice!

I cleared my throat and picked up the bowl.

?Sindu darling, why don?t you take a few mouthful of this? For Dad?s sake. If you don?t, Mom will shout at me.? 

I could sense my wife?s scowl behind my back. Sindu softened a bit, and wiped her tears with the back of her hand.

?Okay, Dad. I will eat ? not just a few mouthfuls, but the whole lot. But you should ...? She hesitated. ?Dad, if I eat the entire bowl of curd rice, will you give me whatever I ask for??

?Sure, darling.? 



I covered the soft, pink hand she extended with mine, and clinched the deal. 

?Ask Mom to promise too,? she insisted.

My wife slapped her hand on Sindu?s and muttered ?Promise? without any emotion. Suddenly, I felt a bit anxious.

?Sindumma, you shouldn?t insist on getting a computer or any such expensive items. Dad does not have that kind of money right now. Okay?? 

?No, Dad, I don?t want anything expensive.? With that, she turned to the bowl. Slowly and painfully, she spooned the curd rice into her mouth. I kept silent but was angry with my wife and mother for forcing my child to eat something that she detested.

When her ordeal was over, Sindu came to me, her eyes wide with expectation. All our attention was on her.

?Dad, I want to have my head shaved off this Sunday!? 

?Atrocious!? shouted my wife. ?A girl child having her hair shaved off? 

?Never in our family!? my mother rasped. ?She has been watching too much television. Our culture is being eroded by those TV programmes.? 

?Sindumma, why don?t you ask for something else? We will feel quite sad seeing you with a clean-shaven head.?

?No, Dad, I don?t want anything else,? she said firmly. 

?Please, Sindu, try to understand our feelings,? I pleaded with her.

?Dad, you saw how difficult it was for me to eat that curd rice ...? Sindu was in tears again. ?And you promised to grant me whatever I asked for. Now you are going back on your word. Did you not tell me the story of King Harishchandra, and how we should honour our promise, no matter what?? 

It was time for me to call the shots. ?Yes, we should keep our promises.?

?Are you out your mind?? chorused my mother and wife.

?No. If we go back on our word, she will never learn to honour hers. Sindu, your wish will be granted.?

On Monday morning, I dropped Sindu at her school. With her head shaved clean, her face looked round and her eyes, big and beautiful. As my hairless daughter walked towards her classroom, she turned around and waved.

I waved back, with a smile. Just then, a boy got out of a car and shouted: ?Sinduja, please wait for me!? What struck me was that the kid was hairless too. 

?Maybe that?s the in thing today,? I thought to myself.

?Sir, your daughter Sinduja is just great!? Without introducing herself, the lady who had gotten out of the same car continued: ?That boy walking beside your daughter is my son, Harish. He has ... leukaemia.? 

She paused to stifle her sobs. ?Harish could not attend school the whole of last month. He lost all his hair due to the side effects of the chemotherapy. He refused to come back to school for fear that his classmates would tease him.

?Sinduja visited him last week and promised that she would take care of the teasing. But I never imagined that she would sacrifice her lovely hair for my son! Sir, you and your wife are blessed to have such a noble soul for your daughter.?

I stood transfixed. Then I began to weep.

?My little Angel, will you grant me a wish? Should I be born again, will you be my mother and teach me what love is about?? I whispered.